Cross-posted from CAFÉ TURCO
On the same day that the trial of Radovan Karadzic began in the Hague, war criminal Biljana Plavsic, who succeeded Karadzic as President of Republika Srpska was released from prison, after having served seven of the eleven years to which she had been sentenced by the ICTY for her role on the war in Bosnia.
These two events occurred just a few days after the failure of the Butmir talks, the latest initiative to overcome the current political situation in Bosnia, which some define as crisis, but I prefer to define as deadlock, because unlike in a crisis, the current situation perfectly serves the parties involved. While the current situation doesn’t satisfy anyone, doing nothing, leaving things as they are is clearly beneficial for the leadership of the Serb entity.
Headed by Milorad Dodik, the government of the Republika Srpska is actively working towards the disintegration of Bosnia by systematically obstructing the process of decision making, proving by its behaviour that any power-sharing is worthless when the actors are not willing or at least compelled to share power.
Upon her release from prison in Sweden, Bijlana Plavsic flew to Belgrade in the jet of the government of the Republika Srpska, and upon her arrival, was warmly received by Milorad Dodik. The image of this encounter are striking: the past and the future holding hands, like a mother and her son.
Both were, at a certain point, considered by the international actors involved in Bosnia as moderate politicians worth backing. This tells a lot about the fallacy of the opposition between moderates and hardliners when it comes to Serb nationalism. Their moderation, Plavsic’s as well as Dodik’s, proved to be merely tactical. Through their seemingly moderate policies, when compared to those of Radovan Karadzic and his supporters, they made a very important contribution to the goal of disintegrating Bosnia and reinforcing the homogeneous ethnic composition of the Serb entity.
During the war, Plavsic, aka the ‘iron lady’, was known for her extreme nationalism and her outright racism. A professor of biology, Plavsic had no problem in abusing the authority of science to justify her racism, by presenting ‘ethnic cleansing’ as “a perfectly natural phenomenon” and claiming that the Bosnian Muslims were “genetically deformed material”:
“That’s true [i.e. her imagination that the Bosnian Muslims were originally Serbs]. “But it was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now, of course, with each successive generation this gene simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse, it simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking and behaving, which is rooted in their genes…“
This was the ‘moderate’ politician whom, after the war, the international actors chose to back. And when she voluntary surrendered after being indicted by the ICTY, her ‘moderation’ seemed to be confirmed. Thus Plavsic had as her defense witnesses prominent figures such as Madeleine Albright and Carl Bildt, whose testimony was an important mitigating factor for the judges (here, see note 20). Plavsic went as far as showing remorse and appealing for reconciliation, and the sincerity of her words was confirmed by the statement of the witness Elie Wiesel.
In fact, by pleading guilty on the count of persecutions as a crime against humanity, she managed to obtain a bargain in which the prosecution dropped all other charges, including two counts of genocide. Her plea thus represented not a positive step towards reconciliation, but a lost opportunity to prove that a genocide was committed in Bosnia by the Serb forces against the Muslims.
Early this year Plavsic retracted her confession, in an interview with the Swedish Vi magazine :
By pleading guilty on crimes against humanity so that she could get away with genocide, Biljana Plavsic sacrificed herself for the sake of the nation, but her sacrifice was obviously not as hard as the one she thought it was right to impose on her own co-nationals. Indeed, for the sake of ‘Greater Serbia’, she considered that the death of as much as half the total ethnic Serb population would be a worthy sacrifice:
So, through her ’sacrifice’, not only she managed to get her sentence substantially reduced, but she also avoided a conviction of genocide that would contribute to highlight the illegitimacy of the very existence of Republika Srpska.
If we look at the concept of legitimacy as springing from the founding act of any politically organized society, what do we see? We see the need to deny genocide, because legitimacy is the glue that binds people together in a politically organized society, while genocide is the ‘original sin’ upon which Republika Srpska was built. If someone like Bijlana Plavsic, or Milorad Dodik for that matter, chose to oppose the warmongering faction led by Karadzic, it was because they understand that violence was merely an instrument among others to achieve a goal.
Until now, the only conviction on the account of genocide by the ICTY was the case of General Radislav Krstic, the commander of the Drina Corps. However his conviction for genocide covered solely the case of the Massacre of Srebrenica. The chance to get a conviction for genocide in a wider area than Srebrenica was also missed at the trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, in which the prosecution failed to establish the Krajisnik genocidal intent (read Bosnia’s ‘accidental’ genocide, by Edina Becirevic). Krajisnik was convicted to 27 years in prison, but acquitted of genocide, and as a result of his appeal, the sentence was reduced to 20 years, overturning the convictions in several charges.
This appeal revealed major flaws in the prosecution’s strategy and sparked the fear that similar or even greater difficulties will be faced to convict Radovan Karadzic of genocide (about this debate, read ‘What Karadzic Prossecutors learnt from Krajisnik Trial’, by Simon Jennings).
Thus, bearing in mind the failure of the International Court of Justice (about this, read ‘The ICJ and the decriminalisation of Genocide‘, by Marko Attila Hoare, and ‘Vital Genocide documents concealed‘, by Florence Hartmann), and the fact that Ratko Mladic is still at large and most likely will never be captured, the trial of Radovan Karadzic represents the last chance to establish through international law the full extent of the genocidal character of the aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina (about this, it’s worth reading this post by Kirk Johnson at Americans for Bosnia).
The stakes are high. The result of this trial cannot but have an important impact on the Republika Srpska. It is not at all a matter of ‘collective guilt’, since guilt is always individual, but it is a matter of political legitimacy. The political identity of the Serb entity is being built now as if it was an alien land, but the past keeps coming back and the urge for justice won’t go away so easily, as the case of the Spanish Civil War highlights.
However, for something to change in the current trend of ’smooth’ disintegration, it is necessary that what is called the international community, meaning the relevant international players in Bosnia, should seriously reflect on what went wrong in their approach both to the conflict and the post-conflict phase. That reflection is not happening and the result is clearly shown in the predictable failure of the Butmir talks.
Nonetheless, I do believe there are grounds for hope, for the simple reason that the future is not written in the stars but is rather built in the present and can always be changed. I believe real change must come from within the Bosnian society. Imposed solutions have already proved their limits, but international support for change will always play a crucial role. For change to happen, we must stop waiting for a miracle, because time is not working on our side.